Ingredient focus – tofu

Flavours of Japan: tofu

by Nancy Anne Harbord 5 August 2019

Nancy Anne Harbord takes us through some of the more unusual types of tofu on the market – silken tofu, dried tofu and sweet sesame dessert tofu – and explains how to showcase their unique features.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in high quality vegetarian food, Nancy has worked in Vanilla Black in London, as well as other kitchens scattered around Europe. Most recently, Nancy trained under Gabriele Bonci in Rome, learning to make his famous take on pizza al taglio, before taking the knowledge back to Stockholm to help open and run The Artisan pizzeria. She also writes vegetarian and vegan food blog, Delicious from Scratch, and is now a full time food writer.

Tofu is typically made by coagulating soya milk and pressing or shaping the resulting mixture into a variety of textured blocks. Low in calories and high in protein and iron, it is often used as a healthy alternative to other proteins such as meat, but in many Asian countries it is also prized for its wide range of textures and delicate flavours. Although soya milk is by far the most popular choice for producing tofu, it can also be made with other ingredients, such as sesame seeds and almonds.

Silken tofu

Although less common than regular, pressed tofu, silken tofu is widely available and is often sold in packets that do not require refrigeration – making it an excellent store-cupboard ingredient to keep on hand. The ingredients and initial production processes are similar to regular tofu, but the soya milk is not curdled (which separates curds from whey) and the blocks are left unpressed, retaining all their moisture.

The resulting tofu is smooth and custardy with a delicate structure that requires gentler handling than regular tofu. Although they come in a range of consistencies (soft, medium, firm and extra firm) even the firmest of these tofus will be quite different to a regular film tofu. While this means that silken tofu must be cooked more carefully than regular tofu in some recipes, it also means it is uniquely suited to other applications where its silky texture can shine.

Soft silken tofu is the smoothest and most delicate of the range and will easily break apart when handled. It can be carefully cut or crumbled and gently poached in soups and stews, or can be blended into a shiny, creamy purée that excels as a base for healthy vegan and vegetarian sauces, smoothies and desserts. Protein-rich, it can also be used as a substitute for eggs and yoghurt in many recipes.

Firm silken tofu is made with richer soya milk, with less water than soft silken tofu which gives it more structure and stability. Although it offers many of the same textual benefits of its soft counterpart, it will retain its shape more readily when handled or cooked in hot dishes such as stir-fries. Like soft tofu, it can also be blended smooth and used to provide body for healthy dressings and mousse-like desserts.

Dried tofu

Freeze-dried tofu was developed far back in Japanese history as a way of preserving this nutritious food. It is produced by repeatedly freezing and thawing tofu until all the water has been extracted. It is a staple in most Japanese larders as it can be stored long-term at room temperature. A five-minute soak in warm water is all that is needed to rehydrate the tofu pieces, which can then be used as with regular tofu.

However, this tofu offers more than easy storage, it has a texture that is quite different to fresh tofu and excels in a number of cooking applications. After soaking, the tofu retains a hearty, dense structure and will not break down in the way even the firmest of fresh tofus can when subjected to high heat and rough handling. This makes it particularly suitable for sautéing or stir-frying, but it really comes into its own when the special chew of dried tofu is showcased. Think hearty veggie burgers with a fabulously meaty texture, or moreish, toothsome tempura bites.

The other interesting feature of dried tofu is that it is unsurpassed at soaking up marinades and other liquids. As all the water has been removed during processing, it is much easier to get flavourings right into the centre of the tofu, making it a wonderfully receptive sponge for whatever seasonings you think would best suit your dish. This also means it is particularly suited to simmering in soups and other brothy dishes, where it can absorb remarkable flavour while it cooks.

You can also grate dried tofu or blend it to a powder and use the resulting mixture as a protein-rich, gluten-free alternative to breadcrumbs or other binders. As it has considerable absorption powers it will soak up any excess moisture in these dishes making it excellent provision against unwanted sogginess.

Nagasaki sesame tofu

This Nagasaki speciality tofu is based on recipes traditionally prepared by Buddhist monks, who favoured delicately flavoured dishes prepared with great care and precision. Naturally sweet, made with lightly roasted sesame seed paste and soya beans, it is lightly set with a little jiggle in its natural state.

Typically served with a drizzle of brown sugar syrup and a sprinkle of kinako flour (roasted soya bean flour), this tofu can also be blended into a luscious, silky purée which adds a beautifully nutty, creamy sweetness to healthy desserts. When blended it takes on a gorgeous, shiny, pinky hue and can be used as a nutritious spread or filling.